This academic year is a turning point for department reps – or so LUSU would have us think – with the introduction of awards for those with the most commitment. In the past, department reps have been commonly perceived as ineffectual and not really doing much for the student voice by liaising with department staff, but LUSU’s new scheme hopes to alter such a perception, offering bronze, silver, and gold awards for increasing levels of dedication.
According to the LUSU website, the bronze award requires department reps to: watch the bronze training video; read an online handbook and complete an online test; attend one Faculty Forum; and complete all duties expected of them within the department. The silver award builds on this, requiring the completion of three skills modules run by LUSU, a short report about the department they represent, and five hours of voluntary work with the Student Voice team (in addition to attending more Faculty Forums and department meetings). For Gold, departments must do all of this but complete five skills modules, three reports, and ten hours of voluntary work with the Student Voice team. The skills modules on offer include meetings, negotiation, assertiveness and confidence, culture and diversity, and engaging the students you represent. All in all, it’s something that sounds very positive and certainly more formal than you might expect.
But hold on: aren’t department reps supposed to be listening to and acting on the student voice? These targets give the impression that department reps can attend a few skills sessions, a couple of meetings, and do a bit of voluntary work and that’s it. Generalised incentives with no tailoring to a particular department that could prove useless if the department reps involved do not motivate themselves and actually effect change within their departments.
Each department has its own particular quirks and needs – something highlighted by department representatives themselves. When this issue first arose last year, SCAN spoke to department rep Marguerite Walley, who revealed that LUSU training for department reps was inadequate. Another rep, Lauren Riley, stated that because no job description for the role is given, there are few pointers on what it actually entails on a day-to-day basis. Though LUSU has tried to remedy such concerns, its one-size-fits-all training and awards are not the answer. English Literature and Creative Writing students, for example, will have concerns regarding essay lengths, feedback methods, and coursework questions. Physics students, who have to hand in weekly assignments and have lecture- and lab-based contact hours, will have very different concerns. LUSU’s training programme, whilst providing much in the way of a basic skillset, does not go very far in preparing the department reps for the particular demands of the department they are representing. In order for that to be implemented, the only solution is for the departments themselves to take some responsibility for training their student representatives.
There is no question that we need a voice to mediate between students and department staff, but splashing department reps with awards isn’t incentivising them to do a better job of listening to students; it’s incentivising them to improve their CVs. The role should be formalised like any elected position is within LUSU rather than picked on a whim during a lecture (the way in which my prospective department reps nominated themselves this year). The value of department reps is incalculable – without the intervention of my reps last year, it is unlikely that joint honours students would have been able to do a dissertation this year. Yet LUSU’s initiative, whilst its heart is in the right place, will do little to truly prepare department reps for the negotiation and dedication necessary to effect real change.